Sermon: February 12, 2023

Our Gospel passage for this week is tough. It seems to be verse after verse of raising the bar. Don’t just keep yourself from killing other people, don’t even get angry with them. Don’t just keep yourself from committing adultery, don’t even allow yourself to look at another person with lust. Don’t divorce. Don’t lie. It seems like a prescription for perfection. Be perfect or else. This passage could leave you feeling pretty darn depressed. After all, who has ever achieved this kind of perfection? Who reading has ever had this kind of control over their thoughts and feelings? I know that I sure don’t have this kind of control over myself.

Sometimes I feel angry with other people, though I don’t think I have ever contemplated killing another person. I have never committed adultery, but I can’t say that I have never felt an attraction to someone who was not really available to me. I am not divorced, but I have great empathy for many people who are divorced and understand how a couple might arrive at a place where they feel they need to end their marriage. I try to be as honest as I can, but if I am truly honest, I have to confess that in my life I have lied. I have not kept every commitment I have made. So, what then does this passage mean for me, a far from perfect human being, and perhaps for you, who also may be far from perfect?

I think if this passage is read literally, it is very problematic and not at all helpful for you and me. If we read it literally it will actually harm us. For me this is not a passage about adding more rules to our lives. It is not a passage designed to burden us with shame and self-hate. It is a passage that is trying to get us to look inward. And it is a passage that is trying to help us to understand the importance of healthy relationships and healthy community. The language is incendiary to be sure, but if you set the language aside and simply look inside yourself, you can start to get to know and understand some inner parts of yourself that you might have kept yourself from getting acquainted with before. And you can start to understand how seemingly small behaviors can have major implications for the health of our relationships and the health of our communities.

Certainly, Jesus is using strong language here. It does get our attention. Sometimes we have to be shocked a little in order to consider a new way of thinking and being. I know that I sometimes need to be hit upside the head. For me that is what the language of this passage is about. It is a wake-up slap. It is not meant to be a beating. I hope that it can be the same for you. Not a call to despair and self-loathing, but a call to become curious about those parts of yourself that you might have chosen to hide from yourself and the world. God cares about all of you, the whole you. God cares about the parts you show to the world and the parts that you hide away. Healing comes when can understand that God loves all of you, those parts you like and those parts you don’t like. Self-compassion brings compassion for others. Relationships are strengthened and the world is a healthier place.

It is easy when we stay at the level of the law to avoid looking at parts of ourselves that make us less comfortable. When we stay at the level of the law, we can say to ourselves: “I didn’t murder anyone today. I didn’t commit adultery. I didn’t tell a lie. Check, check, check. I am a good person.” We can minimize those small yet important behaviors that harm ourselves and our relationships with others.

But what if we sought to know, get comfortable with, and have compassion for those parts of ourselves that we often try to hide? What if we were to befriend our anger, try to understand it, and hear what it has to say to us? Might it lose some of its power? Might we become less angry?

Might we gain some compassion for ourselves and for the one or ones with whom we are angry?

What about that lust we feel for someone who is not available to us? What does that lust want us to know? Or that part of us that felt the need to lie? What does it need from us? When we pretend that these uncomfortable parts of us don’t exist in an effort to convince ourselves that we are good people, we give these parts more power. These parts begin to run our lives in ways that lead us to behaviors that might cause us and others harm. We gossip and destroy someone’s reputation. We seek retaliation rather than reconciliation. We enter into a relationship with someone who is already committed to another. We treat others as objects for us to enjoy. We lie to others and destroy their trust in us. We create tears in the fabric of our relationships and in the fabric of our community. And the world is a lesser place because of it.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. When I was newly ordained almost 24 years ago, I was an assistant priest to a rector who was only a few years older than me. Neither of us had the slightest idea what we were doing, he as a supervisor of another priest and me as a priest, and neither of us could admit this to the other. Instead, my rector blamed me for my inability to do things I did not yet know how to do and I blamed him for his inability to help me to learn how to do these things. We were perpetually angry with each other. In reality though we were really just afraid. We were two very green priests who felt vulnerable and didn’t want anyone to see that vulnerability. How different things might have gone if we could have acknowledged our vulnerability to ourselves and to one another. Instead, our hidden parts took charge and our relationship with one another and the church we served was harmed.

So, I have some homework assignments for you, and no you don’t have to turn in your answers. First what parts of yourself do you show the world and what parts do you hide away? Can you love those parts you hide away as much as those parts you show the world? Can you recognize the power you give these hidden parts, simply by hiding them? Can you recognize that God loves all the parts of you? In having compassion for your hidden parts can you have compassion for the hidden parts of others?

Second, think about a relationship in your life that is healthy, whole, and good and sustains you. What makes that relationship such a good one? Give thanks to God for this good relationship in your life.

Third, think about a relationship that is important to you but has suffered some damage. You don’t need to figure out who is to blame or assign responsibility. As a matter of fact, I suggest you categorically avoid doing this. Instead hold that relationship up to God in prayer. Ask God for help and healing. Consider what action you might take to bring that relationship to greater health.

God delights in you, all of you, those parts you show the world and those parts you don’t. And God wants us all to have life-sustaining and healthy relationships, for our own sake and for the sake of the world. Amen.